Archive for October, 2016

Oct 31 2016

What’s This Thing About Pumpkins?

Published by under Books & Events

Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin with witch hat (photo by Evan Swigart from Wikimedia Commons)

Jack-o-Lantern (photo by Evan Swigart via Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the year pumpkins are hard to find but on Halloween they're everywhere.  Why do we carve them and why are they called jack-o-lanterns?

The answers combine swamp gas, a holy day and a New World squash.

Swamp gas:  At night in the peat bogs there's an ephemeral light caused by the oxidation of swamp gases phosphine, diphosphane, and methane.  Called will-o'-the-wisp (William of the Wisp) or jack-o'-lantern (Jack of the Lantern) it was thought to be the light of a trickster who lured people to follow him into the swamp. The flickering light would go out and those following would be lost.

A Holy Day:  In the 9th century the Roman Church moved All Saints' Day (also called All Hallows' Day) to November 1 as the day to remember and pray for the dead.  This happens to coincide with the Celtic holiday of Samhain (sunset October 31 to sunset November 1) a harvest festival with visits from the souls of the dead and propitiation of malevolent ghosts and spirits.

Samhain celebrations included costumes and pranks. At night the pranksters carried lanterns carved from turnips called jack-o'-lanterns, named for the spooky lights in the swamp.  Here's a turnip jack-o'-lantern.  Scary looking!

Cornish Jack-o-lantern carved in a turnip (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cornish Jack-o-lantern carved in a turnip (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since All Hallows' Day celebrates the dead at the same time as Samhain, Samhain traditions became part of All Hallows' Eve (Hallow'een).

A New World squash:  Europeans brought Halloween traditions to North America where they found a New World squash, the pumpkin, that's easier to carve and light than a turnip.  Ta dah!  The pumpkin became a jack-o'-lantern.

Back in the peat bogs, will-o'-the-wisp is rarely seen anymore.  Wikipedia says that may be because the swamps were drained.  My hunch is that light pollution also makes will-o'-the-wisp too hard to see.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the original)

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Oct 30 2016

Roadside Fruits and Seeds

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Fruits of bittersweet nightshade (photo by Kate St.John)

Fruits of bittersweet nightshade (photo by Kate St.John)

Roadsides are waste places where the junk plants grow but even the weeds produce fruit and seeds.  Here's what I found yesterday on a walk in my neighborhood.

The fruits of bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) look like tiny tomatoes, above, or small jalapeño peppers ... but don't eat them!

Nightshade fruits (photo by Kate St.John)

Bittersweet nightshade fruits (photo by Kate St.John)

 

A close look at burdock reveals the tiny hooks that inspired velcro.

Burdock, Nature's velcro (photo by Kate St.John)

Burdock, Nature's velcro (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Curly dock (Rumex crispus) shows off its spike of dark brown seeds encased in the calyx of the flowers that produced them.  Wikipedia says this flange allows the seeds to float.

Curly dock seeds (photo by Kate St.John)

Curly dock seeds (photo by Kate St.John)

 

And when the wind blows these white snakeroot seeds (Ageratina altissima) will leave the mother plant.

White snakeroot gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

White snakeroot gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Take a walk around the edges to see roadside fruits and seeds.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Oct 29 2016

First Killing Frost?

Published by under Weather & Sky

Frosty leaves (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Frosty leaves (photo by Dianne Machesney)

In the olden days the first killing frost in Pittsburgh usually occurred by Halloween and we had to wear winter coats over our costumes while trick-or-treating.  ... I always hated to cover my costume.

This year has been very warm, even hot.  Only ten days ago it felt like August and today the temperature is 5-10 degrees above normal.  When will we experience the first killing frost?

Some of you already have.  If you live east or north of Pittsburgh the growing season is shorter (bluer), as shown on the USDA Plant Hardiness Map below.  Bradford, Pennsylvania is three growing zones colder than Pittsburgh and the Monongahela and Ohio Valleys.  I'll bet they've had a killing frost.

Pennsylvania within the USDA Plant Hardiness Map retrieved October 2016 (map from USDA)

Pennsylvania within the USDA Plant Hardiness Map retrieved October 2016 (map from USDA)

 

Here in Pittsburgh the weather forecast says we won't dip near freezing for the next several days.  Today it'll be 10 degrees above normal.

When do you think we'll have our first killing frost?

 

(photo of frosty leaves by Dianne Machesney, excerpt from USDA Plant Hardiness map at USDA.gov)

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Oct 28 2016

Three Owls Triple The Fun

Kate St. John holding a banded northern saw-whet owl, 26 Oct 2016 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

Kate St. John holding a just-banded northern saw-whet owl, 26 Oct 2016 (photo by Doug Cunzolo)

If you've never seen a northern saw-whet owl, now's the time to visit Pittsburgh's Project Owlnet!

Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary has been banding them at Sewickley Heights Park since 2013.  Three years of statistics indicate that the best nights for northern saw-whets are dark evenings with a north wind in late October so I went out there last Wednesday, October 26.

Bob sets up the mist nets and "toot" speakers at dusk. Placed near the nets, the speakers play the owls' own tooting sound to attract them. Helpers and spectators wait at the picnic tables for the periodic net checks.

I arrived late -- at 10:00pm -- and heard that I'd just missed an owl.  Oh no!  Would there be more?

At 10:15 the banding helpers came back with TWO owls.  There's one in the white bag in Bob's hand.

Bob Mulvihill at the owlbanding picnic table. There's a northern saw-whet in the white bag (photo by Donna Foyle)

Bob Mulvihill at the owl banding picnic table. There's a northern saw-whet in the white bag (photo by Donna Foyle)

The owls are very calm in the hand. Notice the feathers on her eyelids.  (All the owls are female.)

Bob examines a northern saw-whet owl prior to banding (photo by Kate St. John)

Bob examines a northern saw-whet owl prior to banding (photo by Kate St. John)

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Northern saw-whet owl being examined before banding (photo by Donna Foyle)

Northern saw-whet owl being examined before banding (photo by Donna Foyle)

These talons are needle sharp for catching mice.

Northern saw-whet leg and talons. Those talons are needle sharp! (photo by Donna Foyle)

Northern saw-whet leg and talons. (photo by Donna Foyle)

Receiving her band...

Bob Mulvihill applies a band to a northern saw-whet owl's leg (photo by Kathy Miller)

Bob Mulvihill applies a band to a northern saw-whet owl's leg (photo by Kathy Miller)

Bob spreads the bird's wing to examine the color of her feathers.  The combination of newer and older feathers indicates her age.

Bob spreads the owl's wing to examine the color of the wing feathers and determine its age (photo by Kathy Miller)

Bob examines the owl's wing (photo by Kathy Miller)

Northern saw-whets like to be scratched on the head. They close their eyes when you do it.

Northern saw-whet owl in the hand (photo by Donna Foyle)

Northern saw-whet owl in the hand (photo by Donna Foyle)

After the birds are banded, we get to see them up close.  So soft!

Kate St. John pets a northern saw-whet owl (photo by Barb Griffith)

Kate St. John pets a northern saw-whet owl (photo by Barb Griffith)

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Donna Foyle pets the owl (photo courtesy Donna Foyle)

Donna Foyle pets the owl (photo courtesy Donna Foyle)

Two owls at once!

Two! northern saw-whet owls (photo by Donna Foyle)

Two! northern saw-whet owls (photo by Donna Foyle)

A close look ...

Up close with a northern saw-whet owl (photo by Donna Foyle)

Up close with a northern saw-whet owl (photo by Donna Foyle)

Up close with a northern saw-whet owl (photo by Kate St. John)

Up close with a northern saw-whet owl (photo by Kate St. John)

Happy owl with closed eyes (photo by Kate St.John)

Happy owl, closed eyes (photo by Kate St.John)

Three owls are triple the fun!

Northern saw-whet owl at banding, 26 Oct 2016 (photo by Donna Foyle)

Northern saw-whet owl at banding, 26 Oct 2016 (photo by Donna Foyle)

 

Want to see these owls up close?

Project Owlnet continues on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, sunset to midnight, through December 3.  Be sure to check the details here before you go.  Weather is a factor!

 

(photos by Doug Cunzolo, Donna Foyle, Kathy Miller, Barb Griffith and Kate St. John)

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Oct 27 2016

Witches Coming Up

Black witch moth on an adult's hand (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Black witch moth on an adult's hand in Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Halloween's coming so it's time for witchy things.  Here's one that's new to me.

The black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata) is a very large owlnet moth that ranges from the southern U.S. to South America.  Its common name comes from folklore that considers it a harbinger of death.

No, these moths don't kill you.  However, Wikipedia says there's a joke in Mexico that if the moth flies over your head you'll go bald. 😉

What other things in Nature have a Witch in their name?  Here's my list from 2011: Witchy Things

Can you think of more?

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 26 2016

Taking The Long Way Home

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Northern wheatear in non-breeding plumage, October (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern wheatear in non-breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe) are insectivorous songbirds that breed in northern Eurasia, northeastern Canada, and Alaska.  But no matter where they breed they go home to Africa for the winter.

Research using geolocators has found that they make longer journeys than they need to because they're so committed to their African home.  Those that breed in Alaska travel 9,000 miles.

All About Birds illustrated this amazing migration in the map linked below.  Wheatears from the Canadian Arctic cross the North Atlantic to the U.K, then down the coast via the Azores to western Africa.  Those that breed in Alaska cross the Bering Strait and head east across Siberia, south to Kazakhstan and finally to eastern Africa.

Map linked from Audubon article

Map linked from Audubon article

Read more about their fascinating travels and how they fuel up to make the journey in the All About Birds blog:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/for-migration-northern-wheatears-go-the-distance-and-pack-accordingly/

 

If you see a northern wheatear in the Lower 48 States you are really lucky!

 

Typo Correction, 1:30pm: I mixed up east and west in Africa. Fortunately the birds know where they're going.

(northern wheatear photo from Wikimedia Commons, map linked from All About Birds. Click on the images to see the originals in context.)

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Oct 25 2016

It’s Bat Week!

Published by under Mammals

In case you haven't heard it's international Bat Week.

This week, October 24-31, we celebrate furry flying mammals, learn about their benefits to mankind, and help them survive in our ever changing world.

Did you know these cool facts about bats?

  • There are more than 1,300 species of bats on earth, 40 in the U.S.
  • Bat wings are webs of skin between their fingers (forelimbs).  Bats have more bones in their wings than birds do.
  • Bats have "thumbs" on the leading end of their wings that help them grasp and climb. The tropical Spix’s Disk-winged Bat roosts on leaves so he has suction cups where his thumbs would be.  Click here to see.
  • According to batcon.org, some male bats sing like songbirds to defend territory and attract mates.
  • Most bats reproduce very slowly, only one pup per year.
  • An amazing number of bat species are threatened with extinction -- even some that live in Pennsylvania.

Watch the video above to see Rodrigues fruit bats (they're Critically Endangered) then stop by the National Aviary in Pittsburgh to see the Megabats shown below -- Malayan Flying Foxes.

Malayan Flying Fox fruit bat being fed (photo by Denmarsh Photogtaphy courtesy the National Aviary)

Malayan Flying Fox fruit bat being fed (photo by Denmarsh Photography courtesy the National Aviary)

 

Happy Bat Week!

Malayan Flying Fox fruit bat, resting upside down (photo by Denmarsh Photogaphy courtesy of the National Aviary)

Malayan Flying Fox fruit bats at the National Aviary (photo by Denmarsh Photography)

 

Learn more about bats at Bat Conservation International.

(video from the San Diego Zoo, photos by Denmarsh Photography courtesy of the National Aviary)

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Oct 24 2016

The Days Are Getting Longer

Published by under Weather & Sky

Earth rotating on its axis (animation from Wikimedia Commons)

Earth rotating on its axis (animation from Wikimedia Commons)

 

The days are getting longer.  Really.

Though daylight is decreasing as we head into winter, the length of an Earth day is increasing overall. That's because Earth's rotation is slowing down due to tidal forces between Earth and moon, post-glacial rebound, and sea level rise.

The effect is too tiny to see.  It takes 100 years for the day to gain 1.4 milliseconds.  To put that in perspective, a day was 23 hours long for the dinosaurs and is close to 24 hours now.

The only way we can measure Earth's rotation is by using an array of instruments stationed around the globe (VLBI) that precisely record their first sighting of certain quasars. We then crunch the data to arrive at the length of a day and add a second to our atomic clocks when necessary.

Want to learn how we measure a day?  See the video about quasars at this NASA link.

 

(*) Quasars emit radio waves so they aren't actually seen, they're heard.

(animation of earth's rotation from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 23 2016

Remnants Of An Explosion

Published by under Weather & Sky

Cygnus Loop Nebula in UV light (photo from NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

Cygnus Loop Nebula in UV light (photo from NASA/JPL-CalTech via Wikimedia Commons)

Something really big exploded 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and this is what's left.

The Cyngus Loop or Veil Nebula is the dust and gas left over when a supernova exploded in the area of the Cygnus constellation.  The explosion was so bright that people could see it naked eye.

But they didn't write about it.  The first written language was invented by the Sumerians 5,200 years ago, probably too late for anyone to mention a temporary bright spot in the sky.

Nowadays the remnants are too dim to see without a telescope and some sections such as the Witch's Broom have been named separately.

The entire Veil, above, isn't visible except in the ultraviolet range.  If we could see it we'd be impressed.  It's six times the size of the full moon.

 

p.s. Many birds can see light in the ultraviolet range, so this is probably what the Veil looks like to them.

(ultraviolet image of the Cygnus Loop Nebula by NASA/JPL-CalTech via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 22 2016

What Is This?

Published by under Plants

What is the name of this vine? (photo by Kate St. John)

What is the name of this vine? (photo by Kate St. John)

What's the name of this vine?  I ask because I don't know the answer.

The vine was relatively small when I took its picture in June in Schenley Park.  Now it's draped over two small trees and climbing a third.  It's probably an alien invasive.

If you know its name please leave a comment with your answer.

Thanks!

 

UPDATE at 9:20am:  Thank you, everyone.  Many have commented that this is Canada moonseed (Memispermum canadense).  I'll go check the vine and its fruit today to see if the rest of it matches up.  I expect to find purple-black berries.

UPDATE, 10/22/16 at 7pm: The vine at Schenley Park has no berries but everything else matches up.

(photo by Kate St.John)

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